Florence is pounding at the coastline of the Carolinas as I write. If you’ve been watching meteorologists’ predictions this past week, you’ll have noticed how frequently and wildly projections of her path have changed. She is a massive, powerful, and unpredictable force. Storms like Florence remind us of Mother Nature’s terrible power and that, in spite of all our cunning and advanced technology, we cannot control her; we remain subject to her, a small part of the greater tapestry of teeming, whirling life.

My neighbors’ parents live in Charleston and have come to stay with them to escape the worst of the storm. But even here, some 300 miles from the Virginia coast and buffeted by the ancient Appalachian peaks, we’re still anticipating winds up to 35 miles per hour and three to five inches of rain – nothing compared to our easterly neighbors, but a shock nonetheless for a region that doesn’t often see hurricanes. And, considering how our valley is predisposed to flooding and has already received quite a bit of rain in the past week, we’re all more than a little nervous, wondering how Florence will treat us when she arrives at our doorstep. It’s the subject of every half-overheard conversation I pass by. I can feel it coming – the sky is a mass of mottled gray; the winds are cooler and more persistent; there’s a tension in the air itself, as if every tree and bird and beast is bracing itself for the impact.

Storm Raising

Historically, witches were blamed for bad weather. Folklore abounds with tales of witches stirring up wind and rain, provoking thunder and lightning. Linda Raedisch notes in Night of the Witches that witches would shake wet brooms above their heads to conjure storms. In “The Goose Girl,” the eponymous character calls up the wind by brushing her hair while singing a charm. Lore in several cultures tells how the wind can be manifested by tying and then untying three knots – the more knots untied, the more forceful the wind.

Storm Warding

Of course, for any magic that can be woven, there’s magic to unravel it. Storm-subduing magic abounds in every culture across the world. Folklorist Benjamin Thorpe mentions a bell in Germany with the inscription, “I call the living, bewail the dead, and drive away Thunder” (118). Bells are clapped, like thunder, to create sonorous roars – this is imitative magic, simulating natural powers to deter their force, fighting fire with fire.

Oaks have a long history in Europe as spirits and symbols of protection and strength. With their connection to various gods of thunder – Thor, Perun, Perkunas, to name a few – pieces of oaks struck by lightning would be brought home, carved, and kept to protect against storms; acorns would also be placed on windowsills to protect against lightning (Sedgwick). Similarly, thunderstones (ancient stone artifacts or meteorites) protected homes against storms. Thorpe records a tradition in Sylt, Germany: “if any one finds a thunderstone, he carefully preserves it; because thunder will never cause any injury in a house where there is such a stone” (57). Like the blood smeared on the Israelites’ doors in Egypt, objects sacred to the thunder-god protect homes from his wrath.

Owls are typically viewed as omens of death in both Europe and the Americas; however, there are traditions that show owls’ protective powers as well. Claude Lecouteux mentions an extant tradition “in California and some other states [in the U.S., where] a wood or plastic owl can be seen on roof ridges… The inhabitants may view this as offering their homes protection against earthquakes, lightning, and storms” (39). In England, a similar “Custom of nailing an Owl to a barn door to ward off evil and lightning persisted into the 19th century.” This may have an apotropaic effect, as with gargoyles and medusas, in which images of powerful spirits – invoking their formidable influences, which can be used for ill or good – are used to deter other evil spirits.

The chimney hook has a long history as an icon of the household spirit in European traditions, even receiving a portion of the family’s meal as a regular offering. It was an implement of great power and responsibility – it was never lent to outsiders, nor allowed to leave the home except in extreme circumstances. There are many rituals of the home in which it plays a significant role, from keeping loved ones faithful to ensuring that pets and livestock don’t run away. Lecouteux writes that “Over a long period in England, France, and Italy, bad weather was averted by hanging the chimney hook at the entrance door or outside” (76). There, the chimney hook could ward the home from storms.

Power Is as Power Does

I’ve mentioned several times here how objects associated with harmful spirits could be used to deter the effects of the same or other spirits. It seems counterintuitive from the perspective of a culture conditioned to cling to passive, gentle, luminous things. A culture that rejects more aggressive magic may be confused by the tacit approval of mimicking and invoking devils. But that’s the thing with old folk magic: power is power. Any power can be used for good or evil. Just as love can hurt, fear can protect and preserve.

Gather sticks and acorns. Set out your apotropaic icons. Ring the bells.

But above all, whether this storm or another finds you, seek shelter and stay safe, friends.



Image: Plate 31 from Arthur Rackham's illustrations of Wagner's Ring Cycle


Unlinked Works Cited

Lecouteux, Claude. The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions, 2013.

Thorpe, Benjamin. “Northern Mythology.” Lumley, 1851,